Saturday, November 06, 2004

Resonance with the Democratic Mind

The death of democracy has not left much of a vacuum in blue states. It has been more like the death of an old uncle, whose name had been familiar to the household bar for years, chucking back the highballs and making a fool of himself every Thanksgiving. And he died where he had always lived, in some way-off town that mom and dad never quite got around to visiting - although they had always meant to, or at least that's what they said.

"Next year, we'll all go," were the famous last words. Until the phone call came in the middle of night, and even then no one felt as sad as he did ashamed.

But it didn't have to be this way, this time, for Democrats. If they had only listened to themselves back in Boston. Often times we don't notice real genius in the making until it's found with hindsight.

Maybe the Democrats are an election cycle from realizing it, but there is something brewing among the new powers-that-be, and we aren't speaking about the Clintonistas who arrived late to the shin-ding and scared half the world away with their very presence.

The emerging holy mess -- no pun intended -- with politics today is that the concept of party appears drawing to extinction, and the voters grade all of the candidates on a curve. No matter the office. Which is small solace to those who see elections as nothing more than a small-minded struggle for position in a hierarchy that doesn't mean a thing to anyone except those who are trapped in the chase. Voters want to be inspired, and what the Rovian world understood better this go round was that, if the candidate himself couldn't inspire with his words, turn to a more inspirational source, which in this case was the born-again movement. By Sunday night, the average political junkie will have combed through the jagged white hum of Kerry/Edwards eulogies scrambling for answers and strategies going forward - which is the common revisionist exercise of the op-ed patois. But the strategy came to the Democrats in the form of a keynote speaker, who, for all his charisma and social awareness, showed the Kerry/Edwards campaign what it would take to win. It was the bright, shining moment of this election season - for either side of the aisle - because it was the one moment when voters felt inspired.

They should have looked no further than Barack Obama, the charming speaker with the lightning charismatic layer and blinding intellect. His keynote speech to the party was a form of secular brilliance that reached for a message that the Democratic cognoscenti could not see - in no particular order: freedom, security, values, division, faith.

Freedom. Not in the strictly intangible sense, but of the real American need to be independent of labels and to be proud of who they are; that the Democrat's version was worth connecting to, rather than running away from the alternative:
I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible. Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation, not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

That is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles. That we can tuck in our children at night and know they are fed and clothed and safe from harm. That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. That we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe or hiring somebody's son. That we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted--or at least, most of the time.

Security. Just a simple acknowledgement that there is a lack of security in this country, and that it is bigger than the threat of terrorism. What frightens most of the electorate isn't Osama Bin Laden, but a country seeming to drift away from the ideals upon which this democracy was built;
This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations. And fellow Americans--Democrats, Republicans, Independents--I say to you tonight: we have more work to do. More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that's moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. More to do for the father I met who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs without the health benefits he counted on. More to do for the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn't have the money to go to college.

Don't get me wrong. The people I meet in small towns and big cities, in diners and office parks, they don't expect government to solve all their problems. They know they have to work hard to get ahead and they want to. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. No, people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. They know we can do better. And they want that choice

Values. The ultimately over-analyzed component from the exit polls, the values issue isn't so much faith-based as it is fairness-driven. The christian right, which was clearly untouchable for the Democrats this cycle, would never have listened to this campaign theme. But the vast center would have found the following unoffensive and could have walked away with a sense of the candidate's values:
A belief that we are connected as one people. If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief--I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper--that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.

Division. The Democrats tried to paint the opposition as liars, incompetent, morons and idiots at every juncture of the campaign. Even if it were true, the strategy would never have delivered 50% of the vote. The goal should have been to state the nature of the division and how the culture is being torn in two by the people wishing to divide the electorate in red and blue states.
Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America--there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

Faith. Not just faith in the Christian ideal, but faith in the guiding principles of the nation. That people share a common faith in democracy as they do in the God of their choosing. That no matter how America is labeled, it is still the place for hopes and dreams.
In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead. I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair. I believe that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us. America!

In the end, even if they won't admit it to themselves, the DNC and the DLC will spend many months focus-grouping this election to settle on a strategy for the 2006 mid-term elections. All they have to do is watch that keynote speech for all of its tactical intuition on secularism and values. The keys are all there to be dissected and applied.

Because for every two voters who held contempt for the preznut and voted Democratic, there was at least one on the other side who held his nose while casting his ballot.


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